The Long, Accident-Prone History of Getting the Library of Congress Out of the Capitol

Summer lecture outlines what led to the construction of one of Washington’s grand buildings

The Court of Neptune, the fountain at the front of the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, gets a cleaning in May. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The Court of Neptune, the fountain at the front of the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, gets a cleaning in May. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 8, 2017 at 5:00am

The Library of Congress is one of the most ornate buildings in Washington, but its story isn’t nearly as magnificent as the structure — it was once extensive, complex, accident-prone, and outgrew its original home in the Capitol.

The United States Capitol Historical Society is focusing its summer lecture series this month on that story. To kick it off last week, Janice McKelvey, an LOC visitor services coordinator, traced the history of the library’s spaces in the Capitol, and discussed architectural and artistic similarities between those and its present home in the Thomas Jefferson Building.

McKelvey’s interest in the library’s Capitol spaces started in 2010 through her work as an LOC docent and as a Capitol Visitor Center volunteer.  

The library’s creation dates back to an act of Congress in 1800 when President John Adams signed the bill to move the U.S. government from Philadelphia to the new capital city of Washington. The legislation specified a library for Congress and a Joint Committee on the Library.

In August 1814, when the Capitol, the White House and other public buildings were set on fire by British troops, the library went with it.

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After the fire, Congress — and the library — relocated to the building known as Blodgett’s Hotel, in the Penn Quarter area of Washington.

In January 1815, the Library of Congress gave President Thomas Jefferson $23,950 for his personal library — 6,487 books that he had collected over 50 years.

An engraving of the south wing of the Library of Congress, circa 1853. (

Charles Bulfinch was hired as architect of the Capitol to continue with the restoration of the building. He moved the library’s location from the North Wing, where it had been located before the fire, to the center of the West Facade, where it opened in 1824 and occupied the second and third floors. 

The following year, a fire started by a candle left burning in the gallery was controlled before it caused serious damage, but it was later concluded that fireproofing the room would be too expensive.

On Christmas Eve of 1851, another fire occurred “due to a faulty chimney,” McKelvey said. About 35,000 of the library’s 55,000 volumes were destroyed.

The next architect of the Capitol, Thomas Walter, designed in just three weeks what McKelvey called one of the most “innovative and extraordinary” masterpieces of 19th century American architecture. Built in just 18 months, it was an eye-popping, incombustible cast-iron library, and an amazing feat of technological innovation, she said.

The center section is demolished in 1900. (Historical Society of Washington, D.C.)

Known as the “iron library,” Walter’s library occupied the same center West Facade space as the Bulfinch library. Today, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s suite, as well as several House and Senate committee rooms, occupy that space. 

McKelvey said finding old images from the library’s history is difficult. Stereographs in the collection are “maddeningly undated,” she said. Often photographers didn’t copyright their works until long after they were taken, if they did at all.

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In 1864, Ainsworth Rand Spofford became librarian and convinced Congress two years later to authorize the construction of a separate building.

An 1870 revision to the Copyright Act brought to the library two copies of every book, map, engraving, photograph, musical composition and periodical submitted for copyright.

“I call it the ‘march to the clutter,’” McKelvey said.

The new Library of Congress building opened to great acclaim on Nov. 1, 1897. Renamed the Thomas Jefferson Building in 1980, its facade “was inspired in part by the Opera Garnier in Paris,” McKelvey said.

Father and son duo, Thomas Lincoln Casey and Edward Pearce Casey, were architects in charge of finishing the building.

Photographs from July 1901 documented the demolition of the iron library, which was sold for scrap.

It took nearly a century to get the Jefferson Building up, but it has now stood for 120 years and the speaker of the House strolls through its vestiges in the Capitol.

Correction 6:41 p.m. | An earlier caption for the third photo misidentified the section of the Capitol depicted.